In Amis biography, struggle is scarce, scandal is abundant

Dwight Garner / New York Times News Service /


Published Dec 9, 2012 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

“Martin Amis: The Biography” by Richard Bradford (Pegasus Books, 449 pages, $29.95)

Becoming a grandfather, Martin Amis has said, “is like getting a telegram from the mortuary.” Having a biographer on your tail must be a similarly dire sort of bulletin. The attention is flattering. But the suggestion is that you are, to paraphrase the novelist Jim Harrison, rounding third base, and home plate is a hole in the ground.

Amis is only 63. His prose has lost none of its Frankenstein voltage, its crumpled moral feeling or its scorpion’s sting. But he’s begun to brood. “Novelists tend to go off at 70,” he has said, “and I’m in a funk about it, I’ve got myself into a real paranoid funk about it, how the talent dies before the body.”

It can’t help Amis’ mood that his biographer, Richard Bradford, with whom he cooperated (though did not formally authorize), has delivered a book that is mortifying in its dullness and lack of instinctive feeling for its subject. Reading “Martin Amis: The Biography” is like watching a moose try to describe a leopard, using only its front hooves.

The problem, in part, is with Bradford’s prose. You’re only a few pages into “Martin Amis: The Biography” before you begin confronting sentences like this one, in which words come together as if to commit ritual mass suicide: “Becoming a full-time novelist has no predictable effect upon one’s psyche but it is not too absurd to contend that since we elect to spend much of our conscious existence filtering perception and reality through an oblique variant upon language, a good deal of what we routinely apprehend and recollect is touched by our stock in trade of conceits and distortions.”

The flaws, like the veins in a chunk of Stilton cheese, are pervasive. Bradford strains to make sometimes far-fetched links between Amis’ life and fiction. He quotes Amis poorly, quite a hard thing to do. He makes declarative sentences of the sort you consistently quarrel with in your head.

Speaking of Amis’ political essays in the wake of Sept. 11, for example, he declares: “Not since Orwell has a literary writer made his presence felt so forcefully in the adjacent realms of politics, history and serious journalism.” I scribbled in the margins: “Naipaul? Vidal? Didion? Mailer?” Even the photo selection in “Martin Amis: The Biography” is drab.

Bradford is correct, however, to identify Amis and his friends — Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Clive James and Julian Barnes among them — as “the most fashionable literary set since the war.” They, and Amis himself, are rarely dull to read about. This fact shores this book’s ruins.

The particulars of Amis’ childhood, in a literary- bohemian household busy with (thanks to his father, the novelist Kingsley Amis) parties and extracurricular sexual activity, have been hashed over countless times. Amis himself, as a teenager, is described by a relative as “sanguine beyond his years” and “tired of everything before he knew anything.”

The detail that sticks with you about Amis as a young man is that, until he was 18, he showed little interest in reading or high culture. He crammed to get into Exeter College, Oxford, and, once there, never slowed down.

“It is astonishing that within four years of his having first properly encountered literature per se,” the author writes, “Martin would be writing pieces for The TLS, The New Statesman and Observer that caused great trepidation among the most established writers with books out for review.”

Once he left Oxford, we are told, Amis gave himself a year to write a novel. If that didn’t pan out, he thought, he might go into academia. The novel he produced, “The Rachel Papers” (1973), put him on the map. His early novels did not make him wealthy, though, and he worked at places like The Times Literary Supplement and The New Statesman, where he became literary editor.

Still, no one thought he had it rough. In a game to come up with the most unlikely book title, the winner around this period was said to be: “Martin Amis: My Struggle.”

Amis’ charm, talent, lineage and good looks attracted women, tabloid gossip columnists and vindictive envy in almost equal proportion. Bradford neatly chronicles Amis’ multiple (and sometimes overlapping) girlfriends, many of whom are described with comments like “the most captivating female of her generation.”

Even here Bradford’s prose seems canned, like the voice-over in a 1950s-era industrial film. This is his introduction to Amis’ legendary wild years:

Amis’ personal magnetism is best described by others. One friend nailed him this way: “He’d stand there on the lawn, croquet mallet swung over his shoulder, rolled fag in mouth and very large drink in hand. He was small and ridiculously handsome. The rest of us would be keeling over with laughter at everything he said. God, he held court and everyone relished it.”